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Young Adult Book Review – Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay

 

YOUR PLANTATION PROM IS NOT OKAY

Written by Kelly McWilliams

(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

 

Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay cover

Starred ReviewBulletin of the Center for Children’s Books  

 

High school senior Harriet Douglass has grown up on the Westwood Plantation in Louisiana.  Her parents spent years converting the former plantation into a museum that tells the stories of generations of enslaved people who lived and suffered there. Although Harriet’s mother succumbed to cancer, Harriet and her father continue to maintain the plantation and provide educational programs to help visitors gain insight into America’s painful history with slavery and race.

Nearby Belle Grove Plantation has just been purchased by soap opera actress Claudia Hartwell and her social media influencer daughter, Layla. Claudia’s plans are to turn Belle Grove into a romantic venue for weddings and other events, completely disregarding the horrific history behind the plantations. Harriet is angry and disgusted by the attempt to romanticize history at the expense of those who toiled and suffered on them.

Layla and Harriet first meet at school when Layla defends Harriet from a white teacher’s microaggressions. Harriet is surprised by Layla’s awareness of the subtle discrimination and cautiously begins a tentative friendship. When Layla comes up with a plan to publicly pressure Claudia into canceling a celebrity wedding at Belle Grove, Harriet agrees to assist. The plan, using social media, is successful in shaming Claudia, but fails to stop the wedding. And lands both girls in trouble. Later, when the school decides to hold its prom at Belle Grove, Harriet feels betrayed when Layla, desperate for her mother’s attention, refuses to help. Harriet turns to her old friend, now boyfriend, Dawn, who uses his film and social media skills to help Harriet strip away plantation romanticism and tell the real story of what happened in the lives of the enslaved.

Harriet, tough but vulnerable, struggles with grief and mental health issues stemming from her traumatic final meeting with her mother. Her PTSD includes rage and subsequent blackouts. Fearful she could hurt someone, she has turned away from many of her friends. Through counseling, Harriet learns to control her rage and begins to realize that her old friends can be valuable allies in her campaign to end romanticizing plantation life through the stories of the enslaved.

In Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay, Kelly McWilliams has written a powerful and wide-ranging book that not only explores the complex issues stemming from systemic racism but sympathetically and realistically treats grief and mental health.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2023 – Some Kind of Hate

 

 

STBA 2023 blog tour logo

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD HONOREE

SARAH DARER LITTMAN

 

 

 

SCHOLASTIC DESCRIPTION:

Declan Taylor is furious at the world. After winning state as a freshman starting pitcher, he accidentally messes up his throwing arm. Despite painful surgery and brutal physical therapy, he might never pitch again. And instead of spending the summer with his friends, Declan is forced to get a job to help his family out. On top of that, it seems like his best friend, Jake Lehrer, is flirting with Declan’s crush and always ditching him to hang out with the team or his friends from synagogue.

So Declan ends up playing a lot of Imperialist Empires online and making new friends. It’s there he realizes he’s been playing with Finn, a kid from his class. Finn is the first person who might be just as angry as Declan. As the two spend more time together, Finn also introduces Declan to others who understand what it’s like when the world is working against you, no matter how much you try. How white kids like them are being denied opportunities because others are manipulating the system. And the more time Declan spends with Finn, the more he sees what they’re saying as true. So when his new friends decide it’s time to fight back, Declan is right there with them. Even if it means going after Jake and his family. And each new battle for the cause makes Declan feel in control of his rage, channeling it into saving his future. But when things turn deadly, Declan is going to have to decide just how far he’ll go and what he’s willing to sacrifice.

In a stunning story set against the rise of white nationalism comes an unflinching exploration of the destruction of hate, the power of fear, and the hope of redemption.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Sarah. I’m thrilled to discuss your STBA 2023 honor book Some Kind of Hate. How does it feel to be recognized twice now by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee? Has that changed your life in any way? 

Sarah Darer Littman: It’s three times! My first book, Confessions of a Closet Catholic won the Older Readers award in 2006, and my third book, Life, After, was also a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in 2011.

It means the world to me to have my books honored in this way.

I’ve noticed a difference winning the honor this year vs. earlier in my career because it was announced as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I think it’s raised the profile of the awards within the wider children’s literature community and that’s a good thing.

And now for a funny story – winning the Sydney Taylor Award in 2006 had a hand in my meeting my husband, Hank, to whom Some Kind of Hate is dedicated.

We are both fans of the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule and were on her fan listserv, Happytown, which was a fun community of interesting people. When Confessions won the award in 2006, I wrote an off-topic post telling my fellow Happytowners about it. Hank saw the post and thought “Littman … she sounds like a nice Jewish girl.” He googled me and found my website and my blogs and thought I was cute and funny – but he couldn’t tell if I was single or divorced. He thought about emailing me, but worried that I might think he was a creeper. Like most female writers, I’ve had weird emails and dm’s from a lot of randos over the course of my career.

I was going through a very difficult divorce at the time, and wouldn’t have been in the headspace to meet him then, so it was a good thing he held off.

Fast forward to September of that year – I finally had a trial date for my divorce and I logged onto the Jewish dating website, JDate, to “window shop.” I had no intention of starting to actively date yet, but wanted to get an idea of what kind of fish were out there when I was ready to dip my toes back into the dating sea.

Hank wouldn’t have come up in any of my searches because he was a little younger than me and didn’t have kids. I figured anyone who was in that situation would probably want kids, and I was happy with my son and daughter.

But in his profile, Hank had posted about how someone on JDate had said to him “You live in Boston so you must be a liberal, and like Ann Coulter I hate all liberals,” marveling that anyone would write that to another person on a dating app.

After Ann Coulter’s unforgivable comments about the 9/11 widows, (she went on the following year to talk about how us Jews need to be ‘perfected’) I felt compelled to respond, so I wrote him a private message saying that he’d dodged a bullet. I didn’t sign it, and didn’t expect to hear back from him.

The following day, I received a long email, beginning with: “Dear Sarah, I bet you’re wondering how I know your name …” and proceeded to tell me about how he’d been interested in me nine months earlier!

Our first date was a Jill Sobule concert at Joe’s Pub in NYC in October 2006, and we celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 2016 by getting married.

So thank you, 2006 ST Committee, JDate, and Jill Sobule. I guess I should also thank Ann Coulter for being so hateful that I felt compelled to respond to Hank’s profile.  Love really does win!

GRWR: The release of Some Kind of Hate is significant in that, as you mention in your Author’s Note, antisemitism has been on the rise in both the U.S. and worldwide. Was it that increase that planted the seed for this novel, a particular incident, or was this story something you had already been thinking about as the intolerance, scapegoating, and violence in our society toward minorities or the “other” have grown this past decade?

SDL: Yes, it certainly was part of the inspiration, and a reason why I felt compelled to write this novel when I did.

Many of my YA novels focus on the intersection of teens and technology – an area that fascinates me because being “a woman of a certain age” I grew up without it. I often wonder if I would have survived to adulthood if I’d grown up in the social media age. It’s not that I’m a Luddite – I just view technology as a TOOL, one of many we have as humans to work with to find solutions to the real problems that we face in our society and around the world.

Unfortunately, we’ve been fed the Silicon Valley myth that technology is THE SOLUTION, rather than a tool, and these companies have been making insane amounts of money with no accountability for the damage they do, or their unethical behavior Think Facebook’s experimentation with manipulating emotions through the timeline, and how that led to Cambridge Analytica’s use of it to influence the 2016 election.

I use the analogy of a hammer. A hammer can be used to build, but it can also be used to break and destroy. It’s important that we view technology within that framework, rather than buying the Silicon Valley narrative that it is the solution to every problem.

 

GRWR: Thank you for putting the note in the beginning of Some Kind of Hate about how hard it was to research and write such a disturbing topic, and how some readers might feel discomfort reading it. I felt compelled to read on because I wanted to understand the mindset of hate that Declan, Finn, Charlie, and Ronan felt. Becoming immersed in the world of Stafford’s Corner where the protagonists live, I identified with the Jewish characters who on any given day could be crossing paths with the extremists in your story and have absolutely no idea of the potential threat they posed. Yet at the same time, I appreciated the eye-opening insights into the roots of antisemitism that the book offered. I hope the education coupled with the positive example conveyed through Jake and Arielle, and Kayleigh to speak up, since silence is complicity, will resonate with young readers. What has been the response of your teen audience?

SDL: It’s been enlightening for many non-Jewish readers who have been blissfully unaware of the fact the kind of microaggressions their Jewish friends face, or how we have to hire armed guards and spend a fortune hardening our places of worship, just to be able to pray safely.

But it’s also helped readers understand why young people are drawn to extremism, and hopefully to recognize some of the dog whistles that we hear all around us – including from some members of Congress.

One of the most important things I learned from research and from interviewing former extremists is that most young people aren’t drawn to these groups by the ideology – at least initially. It’s because they have a lack in their lives, and they’re seeking community, identity, and purpose.

That’s made me think about ways that we can help young people find those things based around seeking love and understanding of our common humanity, rather than hatred and fear of the other.

 

GRWR: Since this novel delves deep into the scary world of white-supremacist militias and radicalization from online gaming that causes the rift between Declan and his best friend Jake who is Jewish, how did you remain grounded as you researched it and met many former extremists who shared their experiences with you?

SDL: The truth is I didn’t. I struggled to maintain my mental health while working on this book, particularly when lurking in some of the NeoNazi and Christian Nationalist chatrooms on Telegram. I found I could only do that for short periods because it was like being sprayed with toxic firehose of hate.

Having a supportive husband and good friends, who reminded me to step away when it got to be too much, was critical to surviving the process.

 

GRWR: I cried several times over the course of the book, sometimes as I read Declan’s chapters. I initially thought I would not want to read Declan’s perspective as he descended into the dark world of conspiracy theories and antisemitism. But it was his voice, his despair and his skewed perceptions, that kept me gripped. I needed to see if he could escape the world of hate he’d entered. Is his voice an amalgamation of all those men and boys you interviewed for the novel? Was it a challenge to create and write a character like Declan’s?

SDL: I’m not sure I’d call him an amalgamation, but I certainly drew on what I learned in the interviews and readings I did to create him. What was important was trying to figure what it was specifically that precipitated his vulnerability to these ideas. An impulsive decision with lasting consequences, one that put the future he’d imagined for himself in jeopardy was the key to breaking open his motivations. By layering that on top of the Gilded Age levels of economic inequality we see in our country today, combined with the way social media algorithms work, Declan’s journey becomes understandable, even if the ideas he comes to believe are horrifying.

GRWR: I have always loved novels written with dual POVs. Can you explain the pros and cons of writing a novel this way and why ultimately you chose Declan Taylor and Jake Lehrer to tell this story?

SDL: A big part of why I’m a writer is because I’m fascinated by what makes people believe, act, and behave the way they do.

First person seems to be my natural voice, but it’s limiting because what the reader knows is framed by that character’s perceptions and biases.

By writing in first person but with multiple POVs, the reader experiences the world along with each character. It allows us to see how each character’s actions are interpreted and misinterpreted by the other characters in the story, and how the same incident can look completely different when viewed through another character’s emotional lens.

A big part of the difficulty I had writing this book was figuring out who should tell the story. When I sold the book on proposal in summer 2020, it was from dual POVs, with a boy and a girl character as the main characters.

I was teaching full-time as a special appointment at WCSU that year, so by the end of the year, I’d only written 20K words, which for me is about a third of the first draft. But I’d continued researching in between teaching and grading and moving house and pandemic anxiety and trying to find the time to write. The additional research made me realize that misogyny is a big vector of radicalization for many young men. So, in January 2021, I asked my editor if I could switch it to two male POVs because I felt that was the best way to tell the story. She thought we should try to keep a female POV, so I rewrote it from three POVs – Declan, Jake, and Kayleigh. But when that was finished, it was clear that Kayleigh’s POV wasn’t adding enough on its own, and we could achieve what we needed to through her conversations with the two other characters. At that point, I went back and rewrote it from Declan and Jake’s point of view, and it worked much better.

It was also important to me that we had two male points of view because there is so much conflicting and frankly disturbing information being put forward for young men about what it means to “be a man.” If you’ve never heard of Andrew Tate, for example, prepare to be horrified by how a toxic combination of misogynistic content and algorithms is influencing young boys, and the effect teachers are seeing in school.

For research, I watched a bunch of videos by self-styled “alpha males,” which had some decent advice about personal hygiene, and how to dress well, but fell apart when they started talking about women. I watched so many bearded, muscled men telling young men and boys “what women want,” which bore absolutely ZERO resemblance to anything that most women want. You know, like to be treated like fully actualized human beings, to be listened to and respected, to be paid equally for doing the same job, to have control over medical decisions involving our bodies, to be recognized for the invisible labor that seems to fall on our plates even when both partners are working. What we want shouldn’t be all that difficult to understand.

So many aspects of our society prevent young men from understanding this, including the unfortunate tendency in our society to label books as “boy books” and “girl books” and believing that it’s okay for girls to read “boy books” but that it’s not okay for boys to read “girl books.”

I was at a school visit in the Midwest years ago, and in between the first and second presentations the media specialist said that she was glad she’d had me speak to the mixed audience because originally, she’d planned to have me only speak to the girls because I write “girl books.”

After taking a deep breath, I explained that I don’t write “girl books” – I write “thinking human being” books. I asked her what message it sends to boys – and to girls – when girls are required to listen to male authors, but boys are exempt from listening to female authors. We’re giving kids a message that female voices are less important, that male voices are the ones that matter. I explained that if we’re doing that in elementary and middle school, what’s going to happen as young people grow up and move into the workplace?

Ask any woman who has been talked over in a meeting …

 

GRWR: Something said by Jake’s mom, the local synagogue president, particularly resonated with me after Jake described Declan’s new online gaming friends’ antisemitic and Islamophobic remarks. “It never stops with just hating us. Scratch an antisemite and you’ll find a whole bunch of other hatreds, too. Basically, people choose to hate the idea of us as a substitute for facing their fears of change in society and the world.” You’ve mentioned in interviews and in the book how it’s often not the ideology of these right-wing hate groups that lures recruits in, but rather the sense of “community, identity, and purpose.” Can you please speak to that issue since it seems to be at the heart of more than antisemitism? And how does anyone targeted by this misguided hate find a way to forgiveness?

SDL: I wanted to make sure that we don’t put the burden on those who were targeted to be the vehicle of redemption for the people who targeted them.

But I also know from life experience that holding on to anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Don’t get me wrong – righteous anger when there is injustice can be energizing, and an important catalyst for change. But it’s also exhausting and ultimately corrosive.

I wanted to include Jewish teachings about the stages of forgiveness because they recognize that like grief, anger is something we overcome bit by bit – and that moving between the different stages might take work on our part, even when we were the wronged party.

Change is unsettling. Change is frightening. And when we perceive that it’s impacting us in a negative way, it’s much easier to blame someone else than to take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out how to adapt.

Bad actors take advantage of this. They seek to weaponize fear of the other to consolidate power. It’s important for people to learn how to recognize how divisive rhetoric and propaganda work. When we see something on social media that raises a strong emotion, we must pause and think who benefits from that provoking that emotion and fact-check before sharing it.

 

GRWR: Declan’s parents and his twin sister Kayleigh are unable to wrest Declan from the militia’s cult-like clutches and watch him spiral downward. I thought it was important that you included the people who toward the book’s end listened to and helped Declan own up to his culpability. They provided readers with hope. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still used to foment hate and antisemitic conspiracy theories such as those claimed by Holocaust deniers. Jake’s father explained that The Protocols have been proved to be fake, more than once, by historians and in different courts of law. How do we guide individuals we know who are easily swayed by such propaganda to consider more reliable sources?

SDL: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. A good start would be to train media specialists in every school and to ensure information literacy skills are incorporated across all subject areas.  Part of the reason I included the debate scene in Mr. Morrison’s class was that when you’ve convinced yourself that the media is controlled by nefarious sources, it’s easy to discount information that contradicts the narrative.

It takes patience and persistence to overcome such beliefs. An adult non-fiction book I recommend reading is Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. It’s about how attending New College of Florida and experiencing kindness and pushback against his ideas helped bring R. Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black, out of white nationalism. Reading it also puts Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s placement of extremists like Christopher Rufo on the Board of Trustees there in a deeper context.

I also highly recommend that people sign up for Rumorguard from the News Literacy Project. They send out up-to-the-minute alerts about misinformation that is circulating on social media. They also have a great educational project called Checkology.

 

GRWR: Part of the reason Some Kind of Hate is so engrossing is how believable secondary characters are as well as the setting (it takes an hour bike ride to see the whole place). People have jobs, go to school, play sports (baseball and soccer being the two prominent ones), and even hang out at the local café. I’ve probably spent time in a place like Stafford Corners where the supermarket cashier resents summer visitors and the local economy is closely tied to a big corporation or manufacturer. Did you spend time traveling and people-watching to absorb the atmosphere of the kinds of towns where such “other” anger and hostility are born?

SDL: As an author, I’m always people watching – and listening. I also drove through rural areas of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states while I was researching and writing and revising this book, and saw places where beautiful old houses are crumbling into disrepair, where barns are collapsing, where the shopfronts on main streets are mostly empty or boarded up, and where abandoned factories stand like the ghosts of our industrial past. Places where the opioid epidemic hit hard, and where the sense of decay and despair hang heavy in the air. When you spend time in those areas, it’s not hard to understand why people are looking for answers, for something or someone to blame.

 

GRWR: Are you working on a new novel, one that allows you to take a break from the heavy subjects explored in Some Kind of Hate?

SDL: Waiting to hear on a proposal for a twisty novel that I’m co-writing with a friend. It isn’t exactly light, but not as personally painful as Some Kind of Hate. I’m exploring other genres and am hoping to get back to writing funny to balance out the dark subjects!

 

GRWR: Thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful, eye-opening answers. I hope our readers will visit Turning the Page Books: https://www.turningthepagebooks.com/book/9781338746815 to purchase Some Kind of Hate and then come back and reread this interview again.

 

  • Click here for the Sydney Taylor Book Award official page.

  • The STBA blog tour 2023 schedule can be found here.

  • Watch Sarah discuss her novel on YouTube here.

  • Buy Some Kind of Hate here.

AUTHOR BIO:

Sarah Darer Littman Photo Credit Cate Barry Photographs
Author Sarah Darer Littman Photo Credit Cate Barry Photography

Website: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahdarerlitt/

Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of 19 middle grade and young adult novels, including Some Kind of Hate (2023 Sydney Taylor Honor) Backlash (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award and the Grand Canyon Reader Award) and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches in the MFA program at Western CT State University, and at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. She is also an award-winning columnist.
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Young Adult Historical Fiction – Lovely War by Julie Berry

LOVELY WAR
Written by Julie Berry
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Lovely War Book Cover

 

Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book, Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.

Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.

Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.

Lovely War has received seven starred reviews and is an indie bestseller.
Learn more about award-winning author Julie Berry here.
Read another YA romance novel review by here.

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA
by Tahereh Mafi
(Harper Collins; $18.99, Ages 13+)

 

cover art from A Very Large Expanse of Sea

 

 

National Book Award Longlist
Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

 

 

In Tahereh Mafi’s riveting YA novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl living in post 9/11 America, has moved from town to town her whole life. She is constantly berated with judgmental stares and back hand comments from her peers at school no matter what school she attends. When she moves to yet another school, she finally feels able to channel her frustrations through breakdancing, a club her brother, Navid, formed.

Unlike Shirin, Navid tends to become popular in whatever school they go to. Shirin believes the reason she is an outcast is because of her decision to wear a hijab. The siblings bond over their love of break dancing as a way to express themselves. Shirin was impressed that Navid created the club as they had both talked about when they were younger. For Shirin, joining the club allowed her to have a support team during her period of debating whether or not to have a relationship with a boy named Ocean James.

Usually Shirin keeps her head down and never tries to make friends, that is until she meets her lab partner, Ocean.. Shirin does not want to look at people because she knows everyone is looking at her. She believes that if she looks back at them it is an invitation for them to ask her questions which will either be dumb or offensive. On top of that, because she is always moving, she feels that it is hard to form lasting relationships anyway. In the past, she claims she would have friends but would lose contact with them over time, and it was emotionally draining for her to make and lose friends. Ocean feels drawn to Shirin and hopes to start a romantic relationship with her. He finds her different and beautiful. But she is apprehensive that she will draw attention to him, especially because she’s Muslim. “But the harder I fell for him, the more I wanted to protect him.” Will Shirin ignore Ocean’s advances in order to protect him or will she give in to his pursuit?

Mafi perfectly conveys the emotions and complicated personality of Shirin through her writing. As a Muslim Iranian-American herself, she can identify with Shirin’s struggles and authenticate the experiences within the story. This novel deals with the harsh realities of discrimination and racism towards Muslims, heightened to scary proportions following 9/11 yet still present today. The relevance, detailed descriptions of events, and Shirin’s choices certainly enticed me to continue reading. It’s no surprise this gripping story won numerous accolades and I can easily add mine to the long list.

Click here for a reading guide.

  • Reviewed by Rachel Kaufman


Rachel Kaufman is a current sophomore studying communications at the University of Southern California. She’s passionate about books and hiking with her dog, Scout. Rachel enjoys how books reshape her imagination of the world around her. Rachel knows firsthand how important books are in aiding children’s futures, working with a reading program, Reach Out and Read, by reading, organizing, and donating over 200 children’s books. In her free time you can find her either reading or thinking about what she might read next.

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